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Seasonal Sneezings Off to a Heady Start

Early spring and hot dry spell cause major pollen woes

TUESDAY, May 8 (HealthScout) -- If you can write your name in the layer of pollen on your car or if your eyes are watery, your nose is running and you're sneezing, blame this year's early spring, experts say.

The weather was unusually cold and wet in the Northeast and Midwest, allergy specialists say, and then the same regions were hit with a dry spell hot enough to break temperature records. The result is a rain of tree pollen and pollen counts that go off the charts.

"It's a very high tree count this year," says Susan Kosisky, a microbiologist with the allergy immunology department at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We've had some of the highest counts recorded in the last five to six years."

"We had a very cool, wet spring early on," Kosisky explains. "What happened, I think, is that the trees sort of suppressed their pollination in reaction to the cool, wet weather. When we finally got to the point where we had three consecutive days of hot, dry, sunny weather with temperatures in the upper 80s, everything seemed to blow at once."

Pollen counts are highest in the Northeast, according to Christine Rogers of the National Allergy Bureau. "I suspect that the Northeast pollen counts are higher than the rest of the nation," she adds.

But tree allergies have a short season, notes Rogers, who is a research associate with the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "Once we get past these first two weeks of May, things will slow down again, until the pine trees pollinate. But they are much less allergenic," she adds.

Tree pollen is a major allergy, according to Dr. Laurie Smith, a senior clinical allergist also at Walter Reed. "Allergic reactions to pollen are caused by an allergic antibody called IgE," Smith explains. "When people are exposed to certain pollens, depending on how sensitive they are, the pollens land on mast cells, and when IgE comes in contact with the pollen, the mast cells release chemicals like histamine." The result is sneezing, a stuffy and watery nose, red and runny eyes, and -- for some -- difficulty breathing. Mast cells, part of the body's immune system, play a central role in inflammatory and immediate allergic reactions.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are 25.7 million cases of hay fever or allergic rhinitis -- without asthma -- reported annually.

Breathing pollen is not the only problem. Eating some can cause severe problems for people who are very sensitive, Smith says. "For those who are very highly sensitive and ingest some, say, from a cup of coffee left outside or from eating natural pollen product like bee pollen, they have had severe reactions, like trouble breathing or going into shock. And they had no idea that they were that sensitive before the allergic reaction."

Predicting the rest of the allergy season is difficult, Kosisky adds.

"If the days remain sunny and hot, we should get a pretty average-to-above-average grass season. Early rains have probably helped to facilitate grass growth. And the weeds, like ragweed, seem to be the least affected by weather. They pollinate later in the season," she explains.

What To Do

If you're having a rougher time that usual this season, see your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe a drug that can get you through this period.

For more information on pollen counts, visit AccuWeather, the National Allergy Bureau or Allernet. If you're curious about air quality in your area, check out this site from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And don't forget these HealthScout stories on allergies

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Kosisky, microbiologist, allergy immunology department, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Christine Rogers, Ph.D., research associate, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.; and Laurie Smith, M.D., senior clinical allergist, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.
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